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Shootings Lead to Questions About Police Tactics

Protesters block an entrance to Banana Republic store on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, in Chicago as community activists and labor leaders hold a demonstration responding to the release of a video showing an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Protesters block an entrance to Banana Republic store on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, in Chicago as community activists and labor leaders hold a demonstration responding to the release of a video showing an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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Tension between police in the U.S. and the African-American communities they serve is in the spotlight again.

Although 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot dead last October, a video of the event wasn't released until last week. It showed Chicago Police Office Jason Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times.

Van Dyke was charged last week with first-degree murder. But the video sparked citizen protests, and this week, the city’s police chief was fired. The firing came after community leaders questioned why it took so long to release the video and charge Van Dyke with a crime.

Van Dyke’s lawyer says the police officer feared McDonald would hurt him or others. Police say McDonald had a knife and was dangerous.

The video is drawing attention to similar incidents around America, says Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice.

McDevitt says most police do their jobs well, often in difficult situations. Police see events that are extremely violent. Suspects strike back. The stress of the job is extremely high, he says.

Other jobs that are stressful are firefighters, airline pilots and members of the military, says a career website. They create much more anxiety and fear than other careers.

One former New York police officer has written about his 20 years on the force.

"You really got about one second to make a life-and-death decision," said Steve Osborne in an interview with NPR.

"Your heart is pounding. Your adrenaline is shooting out of your ears. Half the time you're doing it in the dark: It's nighttime or you're in some darkened hallway or abandoned building, and you got one second to get it right.”

But critics say police are reacting too quickly and with too much force. In Baltimore, six officers – three blacks and three whites -- have been charged with the death of Freddie Gray, 25. The first officer went to trial last week in Baltimore.

Doctors say Gray died of a spinal cord injury. Investigators say he got that injury while being transported in the back of a police van in April.

Gray’s death caused civil unrest and riots in Baltimore.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the death of Jamar Clark, 24, on November 15 has also led to protests. Police say Clark was killed by officers in a fight.

Community residents say Clark was handcuffed when he was shot to death.

McDevitt says that killings like these fuel distrust between police and the public, especially in African-American communities.

Lethal force

Many police departments have a policy against shooting suspects in handcuffs. In 1985, the United States Supreme Court ruled that police are not permitted to shoot at a person who is fleeing.

However, when someone is a significant threat to the officer or to others, police may use what is called “lethal force.” Some say police should use non-lethal force when possible, such as relying on a stun gun or shooting a suspect in the leg or arm.

But Chuck Rosenberg, acting director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said officers must act decisively. If they believe their lives or other lives are threatened, they must act quickly and with force to end the threat.

Allison Flowers of the Invisible Institute says it seems Van Dyke, the officer accused of murder in the Chicago shooting, was not trained to solve these conflicts without using lethal force. The Invisible Institute is a Chicago group that has examined allegations of police brutality.

Relationship between police and district attorneys

A big problem is the power of local district attorneys, critics say.

District attorneys are lawyers who make decisions for the government. They decide who will be charged with a crime and who will not.

Because the local district attorneys must work closely with police to solve crimes, they may be more on the side of the police, critics say.

That power to decide whether to prosecute officers should be taken from them, says New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. A state attorney general is the state’s top law enforcement officer. He or she does not usually prosecute crimes.

Under Schneiderman’s proposal, he would take over investigations when police officers were involved in shootings.

Schneiderman made that proposal after a police killing in Staten Island, New York.

In that case, 43-year-old Eric Garner was stopped on a street corner. Police say he was selling untaxed cigarettes. A video showed one officer placed his arm around Garner’s neck and pulled him to the ground.

Garner had asthma and was overweight. He is heard clearly in the video telling officers over and over, “I can’t breathe.” The officers did not let go.

Garner died.

Police said many suspects complain of injury during arrests to stop it from happening. But community groups said that the minor crime of selling untaxed cigarettes does not warrant such rough treatment by police.

There have been other high profile killings of African-Americans by police officers recently:

Walter Lamer Scott, 50, lived in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott was shot in the back on April 15 as he ran from an officer who stopped him for a minor car offense. The officer has been charged with murder.

Tamar Rice, 12, lived in Cleveland, Ohio. Rice was shot by a police officer in a park in November of 2014. Rice reportedly pointed what looked like a gun at people in a park. A responding officer shot him seconds after arriving on the scene. Rice was carrying a toy gun that looked like a real gun, police say.

Community leaders say Rice was shot too quickly after the officer arrived. The officer did not take time to see if the boy was a real threat, they say. Local prosecutors have not charged the officer with a crime, but a federal investigation remains open.

Michael Brown, 18, lived in Missouri. Brown was shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in August of 2014. The shooting touched off months of demonstrations in Ferguson.

The officer said Brown hit him and grabbed his gun as he sat in his police car. Officials including the US Department of Justice investigated the case. No charges were pressed against the officer.

I'm Pete Musto.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

tensionn. a feeling of nervousness, fear or conflict

firingn. Removing a person from his/her job

stressfuladj. making you feel worried or anxious

poundingn. the act of hitting someone or something with force again and again

adrenalinen. a substance that is released in the body of a person who is feeling a strong emotion and that causes the heart to beat faster

abandonedadj. left without needed protection or care

spinal cord -- n. the large group of nerves which runs through the center of the spine and carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body

unrestn. a situation in which many people are angry and hold protests or act violently

handcuffsn. a set of two metal rings that are joined together and locked around a person's wrists

significantadj. large enough to be noticed or have an effect

lethaladj. causing or able to cause death

stun gun -- n. a gun that produces an electric shock, which makes someone unconscious or stops someone from moving

brutalityn. cruel, harsh, and usually violent treatment of another person

asthman. a physical condition that makes it difficult for someone to breath